Friday, May 15, 2009

Caves and Canyons

So I hit the road on Sunday the 10th--left College Station headed for Truckee via Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks.

When I arrived at Carlsbad Caverns it was about 6pm, so I went to visit the birds, then the bats. (Natural entrance to cave on left) Carsbad is home to Cave Swallows--similar to the Cliff Swallow.
Fun fact: local researcher, Steve West, has been banding cave swallows at Carlsbad Cavern since 1980. In 2005, he recaptured a bird that had been banded in 1993 as a hatch-year individual, making it 12 years old!
When the swallows finished swooping around the cave entrance, then came the bats!
The night flight of the Brazilian free-tailed bats started with a few bats fluttering out of the natural entrance of Carlsbad Cavern. Then, in a matter of minutes, a thick whirlwind of bats spiraled out of the cave. I watched for about 20 minutes, and they were still spewing out when I left. Pretty cool. The park hosts 17 different bat species.
Fun fact: During the spring and fall migration, the bat numbers in the cavern were documented as high as 793,000 in 2005. Researchers from Boston University have been assisting the park in getting accurate population estimates. They use advanced thermal infrared imaging cameras coupled with a custom-written visual recognition software program to count the bats.

The next morning I hit up a place called Rattlesnake Springs to look for migrants and nesting birds. The weather was pretty crappy--raining a little and very windy--and cold! I chased around some Bell's Vireos but never got a great look. But I saw some very handsome Painted Bunting males singing. I also saw a couple flycatchers--Say's Phoebe and Vermillion. Lots of Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks floating around--I was hoping for a Varied Bunting but no such luck. Heard some vireos singing. Also got a good look at a Ladder-backed Woodpecker. Red-breasted Grosbeaks. Overall not too bad, but if the weather had been better I would have stayed for hours.

Next up was a cave tour. It was a self guided thing--I went in the natural entrance of the cave and wondered around for almost 2 hours. The big room is the place with all the action. Pretty cool formations. They say its like the Grand Canyon with a roof. Not so much life down there though. But I enjoyed it. Fun fact: The Carlsbad comes in second for the world's largest caves.

After the cave I headed to Guadalupe Mountains NP for a hike in McKittrick Canyon. Pretty good birds here too--lots of cool displays by White-throated Swifts and I watched a few Plumbeus Vireos and also saw Black-headed Grosbeaks singing. I also saw a Golden Eagle. I was a little annoyed that you couldn't go off the trail...and all the birds were off the I did anyway. Mid-day hiking was also not the best idea, but it was all I had.

I always want more time in the parks than I can take. I had to get moving to make it to Truckee on the 13th, so...maybe more exploration in this area another time.

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